Sweet Honey in the Rock returned home for a stop on their 40th anniversary celebration tour they call Forty & Fierce. The four-woman a cappella group started at the D.C. Black Reparatory Theater Company in 1973. They’ve had a storied career filled with 21 albums, movie appearances, Grammys, and world tours. As Maillard said at one point, they’ve performed on every continent except Antarctica.
This multi-media concert was a mix of old and new classics, spoken reminiscences, and stories as well as videos on a giant screen behind them from their career. The group has five current members including two founding members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson. They sat onstage at one point and recounted the founding of the group by Bernice Johnson Reagan, who was in the audience. The first song they sang at their first concert was “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” a performance they replicated with two members singing out from the audience.
The three other core members, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, and American Sign Language interpreter Shirley Childress, all joined the group in the 80’s. 24 other women have been a part of the group as either a core member or guest artist throughout the years, including Navasha Daya who is a guest artist this year and sang a rocking rendition of “Do What the Spirits Say Do.” Bass player Parker McAllister and drummer Samuel Turner joined the group for some numbers, enhancing their natural rhythm with clever bass lines and all manner of percussion instruments.
They came onstage already dancing, dressed with flair in black and red. Each woman put her own stamp on her outfit. They are true musicians and indulged in serious a cappella techniques like scat singing, improvisation, beat boxing and weaving complicated melodies on songs like “Greed” that made it sound like there are 20 women singing instead of four. They often write or arrange their own songs and never use a pitch pipe. When one starts, the others will take their pitch from her, which requires a tremendous amount of trust and skill.
They are also entertainers. They worked with Director and Choreographer Dianne McIntyre for this tour, and used the whole stage to dance around and have fun with each other and the audience.
They are also activists – for everything from civil rights to gun control, gay rights to anti-war songs to the green movement. They started with traditional protest songs like “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land” which Maillard led and had the whole audience singing and clapping along to. They also sang the heart breaking “The Women Gather,” ending it with, “Rest in peace, Trayvon.”
They also sang a bit of gospel like “We Have Come This Far By Faith,” which Casel took point on and the whole group sang and signed along with Childress. The group’s name came from Psalm 81:15, and that history is clearly important to all of them.
In the second act, they changed into less formal but no less gorgeous clothes and sat on the stage, each member taking point on a song and telling stories from their lives. Robinson sang “Everywhere I Go,” a song she wrote about losing her father for their collaboration with Alvin Ailey in “Revelations.” Kahlil sang a song she wrote, “Prayer at the Crossroads.” Casel sang a traditional African melody in the Bambara language of Mali accompanied by a dizzying collection of percussion instruments for one of the highlights of the show and their first of many standing ovations. The triumph of the evening was their iconic rendition of “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” which is a celebration and a joy and not just a prayer. Forty & Fierce could not have been a more perfect name for this triumphant concert. It feels like they are just getting started; they have so much talent and so much joy in their music and still so much to say. It was inspiring, impressive, and so much fun.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Sweet Honey in the Rock 40th Anniversary Celebration: Forty & Fierce played for one night only on March 1, 2014 at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. Check their calendar for future events.
Sweet Honey in the Rock website.